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Column: What won’t Hollister Ranch residents do to keep us off ‘their’ beach?

Hollister Ranch
Hollister Ranch residents have argued for years that their efforts are all aimed at ecological stewardship of precious coastline. They say this despite a long tradition of driving their vehicles on the beach.
(Hollister Ranch Owners Assn.)

It was not a question of if, but when.

The residents of Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara County are nothing if not predictable, determined and relentless as the tides. So it’s no surprise they have fired a torpedo at a new law that would finally, after decades of battle, allow public access to one of California’s greatest coastal treasures.

Lobbyists, lawyers, legislators — the affluent residents of Hollister Ranch have used them all over the course of nearly 40 years to keep other Californians away from their little stretch of paradise.

And now, the Hollister Ranch Owners Assn. has sued the state over AB 1680, which took effect Jan. 1 and called for the development of a plan that would allow public access to some of its shoreline by April 2022.

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What’s turning heads, though, is the name of the heavy-hitting law firm representing the residents.

Pacific Legal Foundation.

Hero to some, villain to others, the nonprofit has been supported by some of the nation’s most influential archconservatives and says on its website that it “defends Americans’ liberties when threatened by government overreach and abuse. We sue the government when it violates Americans’ constitutional rights — and win!”

Pacific Legal has argued against affirmative action, sued California for requiring minimum numbers of women on corporate boards, derisively referred to clean energy as costly energy, and claims that “the right to own and use our property is the guardian of every other right.”

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OK, but when it comes to Hollister’s hookup with the legal nonprofit, there’s a strong whiff of hypocrisy.

The Hollister homeowners want us to believe they’re focused on reaching an agreement with the state through “collaboration and cooperation,” as homeowner association president Monte Ward told my colleague Rosanna Xia.

Yeah, sure. Heard it all before, Monte.

But locking arms with Pacific Legal Foundation — which fights cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — does not suggest you’re interested in working out a truce. It says you’re escalating the war.

And here’s another thing.

Residents have argued for years that their efforts are all aimed at ecological stewardship of precious coastline. In their view, if the rest of us slobbering, uncouth hooligans had access to the area, we would quickly destroy it.

They say this despite a long tradition of DRIVING THEIR VEHICLES ON THE BEACH. I’m not kidding. The California Coastal Commission notified residents just last month that even if such nonsense stops, the residents still must “develop and implement a plan to restore the degraded portions of the beaches … to mitigate for resource destruction caused by beach driving.”

The place should have been called Hubris Ranch, and thank you very much, but please don’t lecture us on environmental sensitivity when you’re using a PUBLIC BEACH as a private drag strip and the Pacific Legal Foundation is doing your bidding in court.

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At some point, doesn’t somebody out on the ranch fess up to the hypocrisy of a long history of exclusion in a state that has decreed that the beaches are not owned by anyone, they’re owned by everyone? This part of the California coast is relatively remote, which would naturally limit traffic, and I think access can be worked out with respect for residents and with minimal impact on their 100-acre parcels.

I tried to get hold of Hollister residents Jackson Browne, the singer, James Cameron, the director, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard — all of whom have histories of environmental activism — to see what they have to say about having their interests defended by Pacific Legal Foundation. Do they even know about it? Do they care?

The only response was from someone at Patagonia, which said Chouinard, world-famous adventurer and developer of outdoor gear, “is not available for comment.”

I hope he’ll reconsider, because I’d like to know what he thinks about beach access and about his interests being defended by Pacific Legal.

“Pacific Legal Foundation has been one of the worst things that’s happened to the environment,” said Marc Chytilo, a lawyer with the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.

“Their approach has been pretty much anti-regulatory and libertarian and do whatever you want with your property,” he added, saying the legal nonprofit has worked to erode local, state and federal efforts to “prevent people from unnecessarily harming the environment.”

No doubt government overreach, bureaucracy and incompetence are rampant, and I’ve spent decades swinging a stick at all of that.

But if it’s land owner vs. natural habitat or endangered species, anywhere in the United States, Pacific rides shotgun with the land owner. It has taken on the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Clean Water Act.

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“Of all the job-killing and growth-inhibiting regulations issued by the [Obama] Administration,” said a 2017 claim on Pacific Legal’s website, “those purportedly authorized b`y the Clean Air Act probably had the highest costs and the smallest benefits to human health or the environment.”

Pacific Legal, by the way, doesn’t charge its clients. It takes cases that tend to make the news and catch the eye of those who want to support the cause. The group’s attorney Dave Breemer told me Hollister residents approached his law firm last fall because, although they were OK with AB 1680 initially, they objected to later amendments.

In its final version AB 1680 makes it a crime, punishable by fines, to “impede, delay, or otherwise obstruct implementation” of public access. As Ward wrote in a letter to the state, revisions created an “unconstitutional bill that tramples on protections of due process, illegal search and seizure, free speech and the taking of private property without compensation.”

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Monique Limón, was exasperated when I asked about the objection to revisions.

“Every single bill in the legislative process has amendments,” she said, adding that 1680 itself was a series of amendments and compromises, and that the residents were involved in much of the sausage making along with representatives of four state agencies.

No party was entirely happy with the final language, Limón said. The specifics of the access plan are still to be worked out over the next two years, she said, and she wondered if the real opposition isn’t just to the amendments, but to the bill itself.

Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network echoed that thought.

“The war started roughly 40 years ago when they knew they had to provide subdivision-wide public access in exchange for developing their properties at the ranch but refused to do so,” said Jordan.

The state is tired of being fooled by Hollister, Jordan said, and the residents’ long-standing opposition to a beach access agreement “made it imperative” that the bill include tough sanctions for failure to comply.

“I think their vision of a public access plan is one that they and only they control,” said Jordan, “and that is not how the Coastal Act is written.”

Note to Hollister:

One way or another — by land, by sea, by air — we’re coming in. And I want your dirty vehicles off the beach and the damaged habitat restored before we get there.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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